Why we still need affirmative action

As a law student, I was in the last class of affirmative action beneficiaries at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1996, the State of California passed a measure to ban affirmative action practices at its public universities. Since then, the number of minority admissions to the most competitive campuses has plummeted.

Now, with affirmative action being challenged in other states, the same drop could occur nationally. The Supreme Court will decide in coming months if race and ethnicity can again be taken into account when admitting minorities - like me.

As an undergraduate at Stanford, I also was admitted under affirmative action. That didn't keep me from learning hard lessons about ongoing racial prejudice. On the first day, I introduced myself to my assigned roommate, a woman from the San Fernando Valley, and her parents. They seemed confused by my appearance. The product of an interracial couple, I carry more of my mother's features and have fair skin. After hearing my name, they asked if I was Mexican. Learning that I was, the parents marched out of the room and within earshot announced to the resident staff that they were not paying college tuition for their daughter to live with a "spic."

The staff was unsympathetic to their request to have my roommate moved. It didn't end there. When my roommate later learned that my SAT score and high school GPA were less than her boyfriend's - who didn't get into Stanford, but was admitted to Berkeley - she freely announced that the only reason I was at the university was affirmative action.

My 3.9 GPA was slightly lower than her boyfriend's 4.0, and my SAT score, 1250 out of 1600, was not as high as her boyfriend's score of more than 1400. I had been one of the top 10 students in my high school. But her boyfriend had been valedictorian. Marginal differences, to me.

We argued about many race-related issues that year, ranging from the political to the personal. Slowly but surely, I learned to stand my ground. My roommate, in turn, had a chance to test her assumptions about the world with someone from a different racial and ethnic background. In the end, despite an acrimonious year, she expressed gratitude for the exchanges we had and seemed to genuinely feel she had learned something.

In 1996, the year prior to the dismantling of affirmative action in California, I applied to law school at Berkeley's Boalt Hall. Though I was a strong student (with a 3.25 undergraduate GPA) and had scored well on the LSAT (in the upper 90th percentile), this alone was not enough.

There are only 270 seats. Applicants, numbering more than 5,000, were placed into four groups based on their combination LSAT score and undergraduate GPA. The first group was admitted, the second two groups were discussed in committee, and the last group was denied. It was into this last group that I fell, as do most underrepresented minorities. However, because of the affirmative action policy then in place, my race and ethnicity as a Mexican-American were considered, and my file was sent on to committee.

There, the admissions committee learned that I had earned a master's degree in public policy at the University of Texas, published an academic article, graduated with nearly a 4.0 GPA, and worked for two years as a border policy specialist for the state of Texas. They also learned about my binational and bicultural background: I was born in Mexico to a Mexican father and American mother and raised mostly in the United States.

I was admitted to the law school because of my demonstrated ability to succeed. But I was also admitted because of my experiences and background as a Mexican-American, which the school viewed as valuable to creating a class that was diverse in many ways.

Critics of affirmative action argue that this is unfair because the consideration of race and ethnicity serves to deny admission to a more "qualified" white student. But deciding whether one person is more qualified than another based on standardized test scores and grades alone is neither fair nor appropriate.

Studies have shown time and again that university entrance tests are better at predicting race and ethnicity than at predicting performance. One study in particular found that top minority students who attended the same competitive colleges and had the same high grades as white students, and thus should have scored the same on the LSAT, consistently scored lower - demonstrating shortcomings and possible bias in the test.

Comparing undergraduate grades is also problematic, since such comparisons do not factor in a student's need to work while attending school or the time it takes to overcome an inferior high school education. These factors affect students of all racial backgrounds, but they disproportionately affect minorities.

Were it not for race-conscious admissions, I would not have been admitted to Stanford or to Boalt Hall. Affirmative action gave me the chance to reach my highest aspirations. It did not do my homework, take my exams, or pass the bar for me. It simply gave me a chance.

Now in the legal profession, I am an immigration attorney in the border region with a clientele that is predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American. Within this community, I provide pro bono services and educate people about how the laws of this country affect them. I relate culturally and linguistically with my clients. Unfortunately, there are not enough lawyers like me.

I hope, that as the Supreme Court reviews affirmative action, we as a nation assess not only how far we have come in terms of racial and ethnic equality, but also how far we have yet to go. If our institutions of higher learning are to maintain their legitimacy and relevancy to an increasingly diverse population, we must ensure that the doors of opportunity are opened wide for students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Andrea Guerrero is author of 'Silence at Boalt Hall: The Dismantling of Affirmative Action.'

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